Today in Literary History – February 21, 1962 – novelist and essayist David Foster Wallace is born

David Foster Wallace, the innovative and highly influential novelist and essayist was born on February 21, 1962. Wallace died by suicide in 2008. In the aftermath of his death his critical and popular reputation saw an enormous spike. Lately it has taken a steep fall due in part to the reports of his misogynist behaviour.

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Wallace’s witty and digressive essays, some burdened by extensive footnotes, broke new ground in the form. His novels, long and dense, have attracted a very large and a very devoted cult following.

As a novelist, Wallace has many high profile champions but he also has many critics who find his work more sizzle than steak. They accuse him of using stylistic and verbal eccentricities to mask real emotional substance.

Personally, I have never been able to get to grips with his fiction, but I continue to re-read his essays with enormous pleasure. His essays show great curiosity and wonder about life’s many oddities and, to me, they show great compassion and humanity. If he is to be downgraded as a novelist, fine, but for me the essays still stand up.

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Wallace grew up in Illinois, the son of two college professors. As a teenager he was a regionally-ranked tennis player, a sport he continued to follow throughout his life.

He suffered from depression, alcoholism and drug addiction for much of his life and was hospitalized for it several times. He taught creative writing at colleges in Illinois and California and won a half million dollar McArthur “genius award” in 1997.

His essays, collected in the books A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and Consider the Lobster, are obsessively detail oriented and whimsically satirical.

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Wallace’s literary reputation now stands or falls on his contentious magnum opus, the 1100 page satirical novel Infinite Jest, set in both a half- way house for drug addicts and an elite tennis academy. The critical consensus is still that it is a work of genius.

His personal reputation is another thing, Since Wallace’s death many stories have emerged about his stalking and physical and emotional mistreatment of women as well as accusations of domestic abuse. The essayist Mary Karr has been particularly vocal in denouncing him.

Wallace ended his life by hanging himself in his garage in California in 2008 at the age of 46, so perhaps we will never know the demons that pursued him or the unhealthy urges that led to his deplorable behaviour. What we do have is his work, take it or leave it.

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